Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening

Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening
Carol Wall

Caring for her yard and garden was never much of a priority for Carol Wall, but one day she decided she had neglected it long enough. Her neighbor had a great yard, so she hired her neighbor’s gardener, Giles Owita. Mr Owita transformed Carol’s yard, trimming trees and adding colorful flowers; but he also changed her life. His advice on plant problems grew into advice on life problems. Mr Owita and Carol became more than an employee and employer; they became friends. Their relationship grew to include Carol’s husband Dick, Mr Owita’s wife Bienta, and the Owita children.
When Carol’s cancer relapsed, the Owita’s supported and encouraged her. When Mr Owita got sick, Carol rallied her friends to help his family.

Mister Owita’s Guide To Gardening is a charming memoir. Carol Wall writes with honesty about her own needs. She has a great deal of insight into both herself and others.  I enjoyed the parallels she drew between a blossoming yard and a blooming heart.

Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a story about gardening, of course, but its a story about so much more. Its a story about family, faith, healing and personal growth. Most of all, its a story about the friendship between Carol and Mr Owita.



The Baby Chase

The Baby Chase: how surrogacy is transforming the American family
Leslie Morgan Steiner

10-12% of people (or 1 in 8) struggle with infertility. Fortunately, the last 50 years have seen unbelievable advances in the field of assistive reproductive technology (ART.) Unfortunately for some people, all the technology in the world still doesn’t result in being able to conceive or carry a baby to term. They are left with 2 options: adoption or surrogacy.
The Baby Chase details the journey to surrogacy for one couple, Gerry and Rhonda Wile. Steiner weaves together their story with medical and technological facts that are detailed but accessible. For many reasons, a growing number of surrogate mothers are in India, and their history finds its place in the narrative too.

The Baby Chase is part human-interest story and part medical study. All the parts are well drawn and accessible with attention to detail.



Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint
Nadia Bolz-Weber

The first word in Pastrix is a four-letter one. If you find that offensive, go ahead and put the book down now. If, however, you find it challenging or intriguing, keep reading.
In Pastrix, Nadia tells the story of how she found her way from a very conservative Christian background (where women were not even allowed to teach Sunday school to teen boys) to being the pastor of a church (with many gay, homeless and otherwise non-traditional congregants.) She spent years as an alcoholic and, after sobering up, felt most at home as a Wiccan. But her husband (then a seminary student) introduced her to the Lutheran liturgy and she began to understand God- and grace- like she never had before. Eventually she felt the call to ministry and attended seminary- with her parents blessing.
I also grew up in churches even more conservative than the ones of Nadia’s childhood. I still haven’t sorted out everything I believe about women in the pulpit, or gays in the church, or lots of other things. But I loved this book!
In Pastrix, Nadia explains grace better than almost anyone I’ve ever heard. Its easy to look at others and judge them;  its a lot more challenging when the Holy  Spirit convicts you of being proud, judgemental and not loving your neighbor.
Nadia and I probably disagree on a lot of theology, but we agree on the big points. Being a Christian- or pastor- isnt about having all the right theology. Its about saying with the blind man healed by Jesus, “I do not know; but one thing I do know: that I was blind and now I see.” (John 9) Being a Christian- or pastor- isn’t about being better (or swearing less) than someone else. Its about saying, “I found water in the desert; here it is.”
Pastrix, in the end, isn’t really about Nadia, or how she looks, or the language she uses. Its about Jesus. And it was like a cool drink of water in a hot, dry place.


The President’s Club

The Presidents Club
Nancy Gibbs
Michael Duffy

Before reading this book, I assumed the president’s club was more of a concept that a reality- a way for presidents past and present to connect, but not an official club. Turns out I was wrong.  It was founded by former presidents Truman and Hoover at the inauguration of Eisenhower. There is an official clubhouse, an allowance, and even a top-secret newsletter.
Men who have held the top office in this country are in a unique position to advise one another and influence politics even after they leave office. As presidents live longer, their time as ex-presidents becomes more of an opportunity for them. This book tells the stories of these men and the unique bond they share.

To be completely honest, I did not read all the pages in this book. There are just some presidents that are more interesting to me than others. The authors’ extensive research and produced a thick book packed with details. When the pages were about presidents from my grandparents era, I skimmed. When those details were about the presidents I remember in my lifetime (Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama) I was fascinated. The post-office relationship of the two Bushes with Clinton has always kind of amazed me, given all the years of antagonism between them. But, as this book illustrates over and over, being an ex-president becomes more important than politics. The things presidents have in common vastly outweigh their differences.
You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this book. I learned a lot from it. But you might be a history buff if you read every page.



I Am Malala

I Am Malala
Malala Yousufzai

Malala is a teenage Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she stood up for education rights for girls and women. Miraculously, she survived. She recieved treatment in England, where she now lives with her family. She has gone on to achieve global fame, including being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to speak out for education.

Of course I knew all this from the news, and actually didn’t plan to read the book, but I picked it up and next thing I knew, I was in chapter 3…so of course I had to bring the book home.

What struck me most about Malala’s story was how she came to be an education advocate in the first place. Her father was a teacher and activist in Pakistan. The school he founded grew large, altho not necessarily prosperous because of all the scholarships he gave away. When the Taliban came to Pakistan and started enforcing Islamic extremism, he lead activist groups and spoke out in the media. He refused to sucumb to pressure and threats, and kept his school open to girls. He treated his daughter Malala like an equal to his sons, which helped develop her freedom and confidence, as well as her love of learning.
Malala’s mother played a role that was less obvious but equally important. She was a housewife, not an activist- but its clear that she enjoyed more freedom and influence than many women in her culture. She had a role in family financial descisions and opened her home to many family members in need. Without her support, her husband would not have been as successful.
Malala obviously is a person of extraordinary courage, but its clear that she was rooted in a strong loving family. Her love of learning was instilled from both parents all her life.

The tone of this book’s writing was very inviting. Malala had a co-author, so I’m not sure how much of the style was hers, but it felt like sitting down and talking to a friend. Malala’s voice came through as direct and uncomplicated. She offered explanation and background for many things that would be unfamiliar to a Western reader, but the story doesn’t slow down. Overall, I found the book somewhat charming.
Malala shares little details of her home life and family to paint a vivid picture of her life. She is quick to point out her failings, including her worst subjects in school, her disagreements with friends and fights with her brothers.

In the end, the book invites us to see Malala not as an extraordinary person, but as an ordinary person who has had extraordinary experience and opportunity. She says she doesn’t want to be known as “Malala the girl who was shot in the head” but as “Malala the girl who stood up for education.” Thanks to the teaaching of her father, the support of her mother, and the story in this book- I think we will all remember Malala that way.


You might like: And the Mountains Echoed, K. Hosseini. Kabul Beauty School, D. Rodriguez.


Compelling People

Compelling People: the Hidden Qualities that Make Us Influential
John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut

This book was something new for me: the first time I voluntarily read a book from the business section. But it was well worth my time.

The basic premise of Neffinger and Kohut is that influence is based on a balance of two traits: strength and warmth. Too much strength and you elicit fear; too much warmth and you elicit pity. But get the balance right and you have that elusive quality called charisma, and you gain admiration and influence.
The authors go on to talk about many traits which can project either warmth or strength -including gender, height, and appearance-  as well as specific steps to balance those areas. They also address numerous aspects of both work and personal life, including job interviews, giving speeches, and dating.

I’m a manager at my job, so I needed this book. I always thought charisma was something people were gifted with- you either have it or you don’t! – but apparently its a skill that can be practiced.  I need to solicit some feedback as to what I need to project more: warmth or strength. But I will start doing charisma exercises immediately!
One thing I plan to put into practice is a body language trick the authors recommend.  They say to imagine holding a beach ball at the end of your arms- you can make it larger or smaller, and even shrink it to fit in one hand- but it keeps you from hand gestures that are subservient, confrontational and closed.  Let the awkward gesturing commence!

I needed this book in my professional life, but you don’t need to be a manager- or even employeed outside your home- to benefit from Compelling People. I appreciate any and all tools that give me a perspective into the behavior of humans (myself as well as others.) This book opened  a window I had never previously looked through.



Cat Sense

Cat Sense
John Bradshaw

I love cats, especially my own three boys, and will read any book that attempts to make sense of their behavior. As any cat owner knows, making sense of our furry companions sometimes seems impossible, but Bradshaw does a pretty good job. He is a scientist of some kind, so his observations deal with two main aspects of cats: genetics, and observable behavior. However he does a good job of expressing complicated science in readily accessible language. It also becomes apparent that, science aside, Bradshaw is someone who has had close and loving relationships with cats. After all, its not every day you read a book in which a scientist moves from discussion of domininant genes expressed in coat coloration to the personalities of individual cats. 
There were two sections I found most interesting in Cat Sense. For starters, the history of the cat pre-Egypt (Egyptian cat worship being possibly one of cats’ more famous roles.) Although there are species of wild cats all over the world, domestic cats every where are in fact descended from one particular race of cats which originated in north Africa and the Middle East. As we all know, as humans moved from hunter/gatherers to agricultural societies, cats were attracted to higher concentrations of rodents that fed on human grain stores. At some point, people recognized that cats were useful not only for pest control but also for companionship, entertainment and possibly warm fert on cold nights. But this was not a simultaneous discovery around the world- rather, cats were domesticated in one place over a period of time, and then those tame cats were carried by trading ships around the world.
The second most interesting section addressed cat communication, including purring, grooming and especially meowing. Adult feral cats (domestic species living in the wild) rarely meow; its a behavior primarily used between mother cats and kittens. Yet it was familiar enough to Egyptians that their word for cat was “miw” (which oddly became a popular girls name too) and still today, Chinese people call cats “mao-mi.” Bradshaw suggests that cats do not use meows to communicate so much as to secure the attention of humans, and then to communicate by their actions and body language.

Cat Sense is geared towards cat owners (who else is going to buy it?!) and so includes many useful insights for understanding your pets and keeping them happy. Bradshaw points out that we have bred dogs over the centuries for various skills (hunting, herding, guarding, etc) but not so much with cats. All humans have ever really asked of cats is that they display their natural hunting behaviors, and keep us company. That is, perhaps, why cats always seem so much like wild-albeit tiny- animals in our homes: because they really are. Cat Sense does its best to make sense- in a loving, scientific way- of these pets.


You might like: Feline Mystique,  Clea Simon. Homers Odyssey, Gwen Cooper.